Liberal Education

The Community in Technology: How Collaboration Drives Virtual Spaces

When educators talk about teaching with new digital resources and tools to create productive learning communities, a familiar comment often arises: “You do not have to reinvent the wheel.”

But this statement misses the point. Higher education must reinvent how we think about collaborative learning. To provoke change toward more democratic and equitable educational opportunities, we must discuss what technology we need to imagine, design, and create in order to navigate today’s global challenges, especially if we hope students will continue their work after they graduate. As a community of learners, we must involve students in these conversations about deciding which devices and platforms might best achieve our shared educational goals. It is not technology that creates communities; rather, communities of learners together create technology. And for those of us who want to see change in education more broadly and equitably, we need to forget the wheel. We need to be inventing spaceships.

Teachable moments

My parents both came from blue-collar, working-class backgrounds, and I was the first in the family to go to college. My dad purchased our first computer by mail order and built it himself. My mom learned to use bookkeeping software on my grandfather’s home computer to better manage his small business machining parts for local companies. In elementary school, I used a classroom computer to practice math, find information using Encyclopaedia Britannica, and play The Oregon Trail. That educational video game let me and my fellow students explore pioneer life as we worked as a team to survive a virtual cross-continental journey by covered wagon. We built a shared experience of learning and problem solving that we could apply to future scenarios inside and outside class.

These early experiences showed me that technology has always been critical to education and, therefore, to upward social mobility. Yet despite the technological advances that have been made since the days I played The Oregon Trail, many educators still resist the technology that has been integrated into our everyday lives.

I do not say this without some hesitation. At my own institution, the City University of New York Kingsborough Community College, we face very real challenges in adapting to new technology within the campus community. Who gets access, who gets to participate in purchasing decisions, and how the technology will be distributed are questions with which many campuses wrestle.

Some institutions struggle with these challenges more than others. Our present reality in higher education includes two very different types of communities: those that enjoy access to the latest technologies, are engaged in problem solving, and have the resources to prepare for the future; and those that lack these resources, are unprepared for and unaware of the challenges they will face in even the near future, and are excluded from the kind of upward social mobility in which supporters of liberal education believe.

I recently taught a summer program for incoming freshmen at an Ivy League institution where this technological divide was abundantly clear. The cutting-edge classroom contained confident digital natives ready to engage with new technologies because these students had been trained in the latest technologies and expected to use them at the college level. At Kingsborough, most students learn in temporary buildings in need of repair. Some rooms have a pillar in the center that arbitrarily divides the class. In most classrooms, there’s no air-conditioning, the smartboard flickers on and off, the computer is outdated, and permanent marker covers the whiteboard. Unlike the students at the Ivy League institution, the students at Kingsborough have not been prepared to use cutting-edge technologies and do not even know what they are missing.

These two disparate educational environments are not providing an equal opportunity for upward social mobility, because the tools available to students are very different. However, resource challenges can also be learning opportunities. For one course at Kingsborough, I had the class work with mobile phones, because it was a technology all students had. We practiced using the picture and text applications to conduct field research about legal rights. Some students then took pictures in their neighborhoods of common police “stop and frisk” points; others looked up judicial opinions using Google Scholar. Students later met in small groups to discuss what they had found. While we lacked the best technological tools, we found a suitable option to begin our different analyses. Instead of blaming the unequal access to particular technologies, we used an ordinary device for the education of our community of learners. The inequity of the classroom environment led to a teachable moment.

A community in the making

At Kingsborough Community College, nearly twenty thousand students come from more than one hundred different countries, speak as many or more languages, and bring a kaleidoscope of socioeconomic narratives and experiences of injustice. As a campus, we are a community continuously in the making, always learning how to learn with each other.

Too often, though, when we in higher education discuss the formation of communities, we point to foundations such as common language, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. But on a campus, particularly one like Kingsborough, these elements are never homogenous. In our classrooms, we must bridge the differences among the members of our community. Digital tools can help us do this. They allow us to capture and document our work with our increasingly diverse student body and share our discoveries across the globe.

For example, I have students think about immigration law and policy, beginning with questions about migration, citizenship, and the institutions within government that affect our ideas. In one class, students worked in small groups, with one group gathering video clips focused on the enforcement of immigration policy, another group collecting clips on media coverage of immigration policy, and a third conducting online and person-to-person surveys about perceptions of the fairness of immigration law and policy. Two students also interviewed faculty and staff who identified as immigrants. I then worked with a couple of students to edit the collected work, and we posted the final project as a documentary on YouTube.

Across the nine classes I teach each year, I use a series of free websites and creative platforms, such as SoundCloud and YouTube, to work with students on projects ranging from podcasts and blogs to documentaries and portfolios. Students can easily access online platforms, which also include library resources, web applications for saving data, and cloud-based productivity software, to plan and track projects that I compile for each group. Learners dump content into a cloud-based folder so others can view, share, or comment on this information over the course of the semester. This fosters constant reflection at the individual and group levels and also lets others beyond the initial group participate (often family members and friends of an individual student), thus expanding the original community exponentially. Our community in the making is now visible via digital technology.

Other digital tools such as cloud-based spreadsheets, word processors, and presentation programs help me collect student questions, survey results, reflection statements, and reading comprehension information. I can then share aggregate information. I also post the course outline and homework assignments on a web page that I can update in real time. Using technology in these ways lets me record a broad picture of the learning process, making it easier for me to design interventions and enrichment opportunities for individual students.

Learning in action

My own work has been inspired by a challenge posed by Caryn McTighe Musil, senior director of civic learning and democracy initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, during a faculty development training: “How can we discuss with our students, given the diversity of backgrounds and understanding, what these terms mean: community, democratic thinking, and difference?

I decided to ask my students to grapple with these terms as a group, as each new class develops ongoing learning processes for its unique makeup and needs. We cocreate structured learning opportunities in which students work together to solve common problems and develop practical, digital-based skills they can use across classes and disciplines, as well as in cocurricular activities.

One class, for instance, learned to use online legal resources to defend against a landlord eviction action in a public court. Using the computer lab, students downloaded and completed a form from the local court website to respond to the eviction notice. They also typed a support of their defense in a Word document, using web-based resources like Google Scholar and the Legal Information Institute to find supporting case law and arguments.1 We often ask that students engage with civic problems, but we take for granted the skills necessary to do so. Using these digital tools allows students to gain confidence while learning about the processes and underlying arguments that formalize the judicial system.

In an environmental politics course, I asked students how they would respond to a sudden unknown situation using the knowledge from class. They chose disaster response as their research topic, deciding to design an ecological-preparation video game based on what happened during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Because I did not have much knowledge about video games, I collaborated with a former student who had gone on to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice with a focus on investigation using technology. I also reached out to a community partner with whom I had previously coordinated an after-school program and who had an interest in designing environmental simulations and games. Students used multiple open-source online platforms to share information and track our progress on the project. We started off using Adobe PDF worksheets but transferred to the website platform WordPress, which provided a more interactive user experience and allowed us to communicate quickly with all project participants and upload content during class time. Students worked in three groups over the semester to develop the coding, characters, and storyline for a natural disaster response.

Today, we have a growing community of learners interested in improving the original video game and simulation. The game is shared on a website for ongoing action research projects, allowing former students to share it on social media. It also allows me to reuse the project with future classes. I’ve even had someone email me to ask about replicating the project at her institution. On my own campus, I am now learning the software application STELLA to conduct systems analyses of global environmental and social mobilization problems with professors from another department. In sum, the use of technology has provided a nexus of activities from multiple points of view and across disciplines to confront global challenges with students.

The future is now

If we agree that we must provide learners with the digital tools necessary to collaborate globally on pressing modern challenges like migration and climate change, why has the integration of new technology been so hard to implement equitably nearly two decades into the new millennium? I believe that those who maintain the status quo, those who do not try to reinvent the wheel, are at least partially to blame. I have outlined how technology can be integrated even at an under-resourced institution and in a way that builds community across differences.

Today’s technologies are not the inventions of individuals or small groups; they are reflective of larger social processes that account for complex and diverse interests and needs. Truly innovative technology is the product of social construction and the ability of community members to use their education to adapt and improve society’s material conditions through collective thinking and action. Change in the educational status quo needs to employ technology as central to the presentation, collection, documentation, record-keeping, communication, coproduction, and distribution of new and old knowledge. Educators must facilitate structured learning opportunities that allow learners to coproduce civic knowledge using digital tools and resources. These technologies help hold students accountable and make it easier for them to creatively share knowledge face-to-face and in online communities. Digital resources also help educators better serve students’ individual needs and provide collective opportunities for reflection, revision, and sharing across generations and learning methods. With an institutional commitment, learning systems can change radically toward this kind of coconstruction of knowledge. We know where we have been: the wheel of education. We must now decide where we will go next and which metaphor is best to get us there: the wheel of old or the spaceship of new.


1. For more information on the “Legal Information Institute” at Cornell Law School, visit

Jason Leggett is assistant professor of political science and criminal justice at the City University of New York Kingsborough Community College.

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